Gary Shteyngart, author of the New York Times Bestselling novel Super Sad True Love Story recently sat down with me over a hummus and whole grain sandwich (I opted for ham and brie on croissant – not the healthy choice by any means) and smiled as I peppered him with questions regarding said book, his thoughts on MFA programs (he teaches one at Columbia), and his tenuous relationship with technology.
SSTLS is in fact, a love story, but it is one fraught with one-way blind manifestations of love, painfully abbreviated text messages and journal entries, offers of hope to even the most mismatched of pairs, and a less than glamorous take on what might become the way in which we find our "soul mates" somewhere in the near future, say next Tuesday. All the while Lenny, the protagonist, is hoping to find a way to cash in on his company's services, specifically the promise of living forever even as his world, the United States that his Russian parents so happily embraced, comes crashing down around him.
KC: So, first off, how much do you hate the word dystopian at this point?
GS: I really hate it, yeah. I’m sure every second reader who picks it up and sees the word dystopian puts it down immediately. But then, this book has a unique audience, I mean literary fiction is this tiny little ghetto to begin with, where few brave souls venture.
KC: And those souls are pretty masochistic.
GS: …and strange, very strange people. Which is fine. I’m strange.
KC: So where did the idea for SSTLS come from?
GS: [shrugs] I don’t know, it just kind of happened.
KC: Okay, could you elaborate?
GS: [laughs] Well, you have these vats bubbling at all times, one is marinating here another is boiling over there, and sometimes the stuff in them is good, sometimes it isn’t. I got like five or six going right now, and I’m sure half of them will get thrown out. But I had these characters, a Lenny, and a Eunice – you file them away for future use. I knew I’d use these characters at some point. But for me, the key is taking my time. I think of myself as a journalist, watching everything, keeping notes.
KC: I read a lot of religion is being replaced, which is happening right now and has been for awhile. Everyone seems to be running away from it.
GS: Well, not everyone. But a certain educated class.
KC: And yet in the book you seem to acknowledge a spiritual need that doesn’t disappear. It seems like it just gets replaced with other things. There’s the technology, there’s Lenny’s books. There’s the father figure issues…
GS: Father figure. Lenny and Euny have huge ties to their fathers, and all the issues that go with that.
KC: Everyone in the book seems to have parental issues, even Joshie and his paintings. Early on Euny said the only real man for her was her Dad, and it never really changed as I read it.
GS: Never changed, no. But in regards to technology, this is what is interesting: what we see right now, what we’ve been promised for some time, it promises us this type of rebirth, this correlation between technology and youth. But in the end, as the book posits, it is all the same, just with a slightly different twist.
KC: So what is your take on technology? Do you love it? Hate it?
GS: So today there is this article on Yahoo about people who write on their laptops with them sitting on their stomachs, lying down, and they have this mottled skin.
KC: I’ve got that.
GS: You’ve got it too?
KC: Yep. [We both proceed to unbutton our shirts a few buttons to compare pasty yet mottled chests]
GS: So it’s the heat right?
KC: I dunno.
GS: Are we gonna die?
KC: Dunno, but I figure between the cancer we get from the phones, the fumes I breathe from gas wells, etc… But then I’m the one eating a ham and brie on buttery croissant, so that’s gotta be the frontrunner in my demise.
GS: But I’m eating hummus here, and the grapefruit soda…
KC: So why are you, then? See? You’re just nurturing the cancer. Don’t do it. Remember chemo is a poison, so it’s the ham and the brie on croissant – think about it. I’m killing it, you’re helping it.
GS: [laughs] Now I know I made the wrong decision.
KC: So besides the fact that it’s killing you…
GS: Well, that points to its overuse in my life, I’m dying of laptop exposure. The iPhone has been eating my time away.
KC: Are you able to pull yourself off of it? Can you master it? Or is it the heroin of tech?
GS: Definitely the heroin, the heart’s mistress of tech. But as a value added product, there is nothing good coming from it. It can be useful. I don’t drive, so once in Seattle I used it to help me navigate, beyond that. [Shrugs shoulders] I’m surrounded by a beautiful city on a beautiful day, and yet I’m gazing into my iPhone.
KC: Look around us, I see three people on their phones, a crackberry over there, two more laptop users, two more with headphones…
GS: And the idea is that we are all uploading or downloading something important – and we’re not.
KC: Well, via your Facebook page I knew that you were on a book tour yesterday.
GS: Is that value added?
KC: Well, I knew you just got back from the road, that when you said let’s move it to 1pm versus 1230pm that you were probably dead dog tired. You got some empathy from me via that post.
GS: Okay, so that’s value added.
KC: Of course, we could’ve talked over the phone.
GS: But maybe the empathy was what I wanted, maybe we’re very calculating about what we post and what we want from said post. We want approval, empathy.
KC: So do you fear technology?
GS: Trying to find a way out of it. Look, one of the reasons I got into it was writing this book, I had to hire an intern to teach me how to do it all.
KC: How to set up your computer?
GS: And then some, I had a Hotmail account, that was it. So now the key is, how do I get out of it? I want to keep some of it… but how can I not check, I dunno, the freaking weather? I want to go back to reading the New York Times as a paper product. I mean, who’s really getting happier off of this stuff, you know? I care about the present moment, I just can’t seem to keep up with it. The future is the present, the present is the past.
KC: A four letter word.
GS: Yeah, sad but true.
KC: So how do you see the future, do you really see it as your book portrays? Do you hope you’re wrong?
GS: I’m not really much of a seer… I’m not a prophet.
GS: My guess is more about the present. I guess it’ll be more of the same. It will be interesting to see how technology will work into the class system. There is this decline of the middle class, a Brazilafication of the US.
KC: You’re either filthy stinking or dirt poor.
GS: Right. But it is amazing how technology has flourished in the poorer countries.
KC: Well they leapfrogged over the U.S. because we had all these land lines, all this infrastructure we couldn’t just walk away from. Whereas they went from mail straight to wireless. It is infinitely easier to erect a cell tower than it is to lay thousands of miles of cable.
GS: Pretty soon they’ll be using their wireless to calculate the fastest way to get from their slum to the garbage dump.
KC: Is it true you had to rewrite SSTLS because, at first, you had the banks failing and GM going bankrupt?
GS: Yeah. And then when those things really happened, I had to destroy the US even more so. By the end of the book the country is taken over by a Norwegian hedge fund.
GS: But that’s one of the problems with writing a book these days. How long does it take? Two, three years? How am I supposed to keep it relevant?
KC: Or timeless?
GS: Love story. Or some of the usual ingredients that have been used since the time of the Greeks.
KC: So tell us about your process.
GS: Eleven to four. Thereabouts, maybe an hour for lunch, so about four hours a day. Beyond that it’s really stupid.
KC: Why is that, for you anyway? I mean some guys go at it ten hours a day, or so they say.
GS: Well, I shoot for two to three pages a day. For the first draft I do a few pages, and then go back from the beginning, rewrite, and move on. By the second draft I shoot for three to four pages a day, and so on. I like to rewind the book and replay it with the new stuff added, see if it holds.
KC: Nice. And your dialog?
GS: Very important to me. I read all my dialog out loud. This is important, you can see what sounds natural or forced. If it sounds stupid, you don’t want to read that, and you shouldn’t write it either.
KC: Okay, so MFA programs. You teach at Columbia. I’m curious as to your take on them, good or bad. I mean, I know it’s easy to throw rocks at them, but then maybe that’s because a lot of these programs seem to focus on the technique, how to write, versus the why, the story itself.
KC: Or at least maybe that’s because of what we see, some of the product that’s coming out?
GS: I focus on the why. It’s harder. You can get people to do craft. But getting people to do the why, that’s the hard part. So, you know, you offer that out there for your students and it’s like the Japanese custom of only accepting a gift on the third offer. You have to keep putting it out there and hoping the student takes it in her own way.
KC: So how do you get them to focus on that?
GS: You let the game come to them. Or not. There’s only so much you can do. Besides, let’s say ten to twenty percent of your class “gets it” – that’s a huge amount of writers right there. There are four hundred MFA programs out there. If on average they have twenty students that get it, that’s eight thousand writers a year. What are we gonna do with all those writers?
KC: So you don’t want that kind of success then.
GS: Yeah, I’m fine with eight hundred. I’m fine with eight great writers a year.
KC: Fair enough.
GS: Chuck never got an MFA right?
KC: No, I don’t think so, a journalism degree.
GS: Good for him. He doesn’t seem like an MFA guy. He’s doing what, a book a year?
KC: Yeah, and then some, given that he did three this year.
GS: That’s crazy; he’s like the Joyce Carol Oates of men.
KC: So what’s next for you?
GS: Well I’m tired of fiction for now. It’ll be non-fiction next. I mean it was fun writing satire about Russia in the last book, and then I went after America in this one, but three books in satiric mode, that takes a lot out of you.
KC: Only so much dark comedy in you?
GS: Yeah, though I do want to write about my love for post-apocalyptic movies of my youth. Like The Day After.
KC: I remember that one well, we had no homework that night, then we watched it again the next day in class, we devoted like the whole week to it. It was gospel.
GS: It was insane, then after the movie there was like this five hour panel discussion.
KC: Right. We were told, I guess as some sort of sick consolation, that since we were living in a primary target area, we wouldn’t have to worry about the radiation poisoning and all. We’d be vaporized. The movie ended a little earlier for us.
GS: We were just kids.
KC: Yeah, but we took it in stride, kind of like Euny, only we just had Atari back then.
Kasey Carpenter writes ad nauseum on the subject of wine and looks to his ongoing fiction projects for balance. When he hits/neglects his wordcount, he just might throw up a post at www.kaseycarpenter.com.